Sunday’s Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona at the Bernabeu — stream LIVE, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN+ — might not be decisive in terms of LaLiga’s title race, but it’s still a fiery rivalry with plenty on the line. (The lines, from Caesars: +110 for Real Madrid, +225 for Barcelona, and +265 for the draw.) For Real Madrid, it’s the final real hurdle between them and winning the league, while for Barcelona, Xavi has a great chance to show just how quickly the Blaugrana revolution is going.
Which team has the edge? Which players will likely decide the contest? And which head-to-head matchups will be crucial? Alex Kirkland (Real Madrid) and Sam Marsden (Barcelona) break down the game from both perspectives.
The big question for each team
How do Real Madrid approach a Clasico that kicks off with them 10 points clear at the top of the table, and 15 points above Barcelona? This fixture always, always matters, but this time it won’t be decisive in the title race.
Sevilla, their nearest challengers, look like they’re slipping away, and with 10 games left it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Madrid don’t end up champions. So while a win against Xavi’s resurgent Barca would be cause for celebration, a draw would be fine and a narrow loss would be no reason to panic.
The availability of Karim Benzema — at the time of writing, a doubt with a calf problem picked up in Madrid’s 3-0 win at Real Mallorca — will be a significant factor. Madrid rely on Benzema to dictate their forward play. In his absence last month, coach Carlo Ancelotti experimented with Marco Asensio, Isco and Gareth Bale in the role with varying degrees of success.
The temptation is to pick Benzema even if he’s not fully fit, but is that a risk you can take with LaLiga close to being won and the Champions League quarterfinals on the horizon?
Can Barcelona control the game and keep the ball as far away from their goal as possible? Under Xavi Hernandez, Barca have improved all three “Ps” (possession, positioning and pressing), but they remain far from the finished article. Without the ball, good counter-attacking teams can still exploit their weaknesses, and Madrid certainly fit that category. There were already signs of Barca’s improvement when the teams met in the Spanish Supercopa in January. Ultimately, though, Madrid picked them off on the break to seal an extra-time win in Saudi Arabia.
Barca’s upward trajectory has continued over the past two months and with some added efficiency in front of goal, they’ve comfortably dismantled Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Napoli and Athletic Bilbao, scoring four goals against all of them. The challenge against Madrid will be to really test how far they have come.
If they can keep the ball away from Carlo Ancelotti’s side, win it back quickly when they lose it and limit counterattacks, things they’ve done in recent games against inferior opposition, there’s no reason they can’t end their barren run — Barca haven’t beaten their rivals in LaLiga since 2019 — in this fixture.
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Stats of interest heading into Sunday
Real Madrid are on their best Clasico run in years, having won the last five meetings in all competitions. The last team to dominate this rivalry to that extent was Pep Guardiola’s Barca, who won five in a row between 2008 and 2010, including the famous 6-2 at the Bernabeu and 5-0 at Camp Nou.
Benzema is LaLiga’s outstanding offensive player, topping the charts for goals (22) and assists (11) as well as expected goals (17.2), non-penalty goals (17), shots (89), shots on target (38) and passes into the penalty area (72). (All stats from FBRef.)The breakout season of Vinicius Junior is backed up by numbers too. The winger has dribbled past 97 players — his nearest rival, Rayo Vallecano‘s Oscar Trejo, has 61 — and carried the ball into the opposition box 78 times, way ahead of Betis’ Nabil Fekir with 48.
Surprisingly, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois does not have the highest save percentage in LaLiga — his 78.4% comes in second to the 80% of Sevilla’s Bono — but elsewhere, Madrid players lead in a number of key categories. Toni Kroos is the player who has played most passes into the final third (207, ahead of Barca’s Sergio Busquets), and Casemiro has won the most tackles (60).
Xavi’s fingerprints on this Barca side are most visible in how the team has recovered its pressing style, but the biggest improvement has been in front of goal. The January signings of Ferran Torres, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Adama Traore have especially helped in that sense: Torres already has five goals in all competitions, while Aubameyang has weighed in with six. Traore’s contribution has been setting up goals, with four assists in six appearances.
Goals were a big problem for Barca before January. In their first 21 league games this season, they scored 32 times. By contrast, they’ve netted 20 goals in their last six LaLiga matches. The goals are now flying in from everywhere, too, with Riqui Puig the 22nd player to score for them in the league this season when he netted last weekend. Never have so many different players scored for a club in the same season in the Spanish top flight.
Those goals have contributed to a four-game winning run in the league and a 12-game unbeaten streak as, with Xavi at the helm, they have risen from ninth to third in the table. The last time they lost a game in normal time was in December to Bayern Munich, with their only two defeats in the 18 games since coming after extra-time.
The players most likely to make a difference are…
Though Benzema and Vinicius often grab the headlines, there’s a strong case to be made that Courtois has been Madrid’s most consistent, and important, player this season. The goalkeeper has conceded just 21 goals in 28 LaLiga games so far, keeping 12 clean sheets, and is guaranteed to make one jaw-droppingly good save per game.
Courtois’ form has helped minimise the impact of Madrid’s sometimes shaky defence. David Alaba and Eder Militao are both excellent footballers, but neither is immune to the occasional blunder, while injury problems for Dani Carvajal and Ferland Mendy have left the team exposed at full-back.
In midfield, Luka Modric is still hugely influential, providing dynamism and forward momentum alongside Kroos’ rhythmic passing and Casemiro’s assertive play. Modric excelled against Paris Saint-Germain last week and was then rested against Mallorca with the Clasico in mind. Watching the Croatian go up against Barca’s young pretenders Pedri and Gavi — their combined ages, 19 and 17, add up to Modric’s 36 — should be good fun.
Xavi’s emphasis has been on the group since he took over. “Pressing is non-negotiable,” he said on Wednesday. “There’s no room for anyone that’s not prepared to press. The group is more important than any individual.”
If Sergio Busquets plays well, that usually means Barca play well, too. There has been a lot of debate about the club captain this season. Is he still capable of performing against the best? Should he be dropped? Though there’s another question, asked earlier in the campaign, which now seems more relevant: why is Busquets better for Spain than Barca?
It’s all a matter of style. Under Luis Enrique with the national team, he’s played better because the system suits him. With Xavi, that is now also the case at Barca again. It’s true that at 33 age is increasingly against him, but it’s also true that Busquets at his best, robbing balls back high up the pitch and giving it to more creative players, is usually a sign that Barca are playing well.
Elsewhere, €55 million signing Torres has quickly established himself as Barca’s key forward. His movement and intelligence have vastly improved the team’s attacking output and while his finishing has let him down at times, Xavi’s not worried. “The goals will come,” the coach says.
Key head-to-head matchups
Marcelo, 33, is a club legend, but there’s a reason his contract will not be renewed when it expires this summer. The Brazilian was always happier joining the attack rather than defending — that’s still the case, as evidenced by the pinpoint cross he provided for Benzema to score with a header against Mallorca on Monday — but he increasingly struggles to get back into position following those frequent forays forwards.
There’s no question Barca will target Madrid’s left-hand side if Marcelo starts, and the thought of Dembele or Traore running riot on that flank is a sobering one. He’ll need support from midfield — the inclusion of Fede Valverde would provide cover — and Vinicius will have to track back too.
The midfield battle will be interesting as Barca’s youngsters, Pedri, Gavi and Frenkie de Jong, alongside veteran Busquets, attempt to get the better of Madrid’s experienced trio of Casemiro, Modric and Kroos. Just as important, though, will be the matchup on the wings. Dani Alves going head-to-head with fellow Brazilian, Vinicius, should be particularly interesting.
Vinicius, 21, is enjoying an exceptional season and will have too much pace for Alves. However, what Alves may lack in pace — and he’s not slow by any means — he makes up for in experience. How he deals with Vinicius on the Madrid left and how Barca in general cope with Madrid’s counter-attacks could determine the outcome of this match.
Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona: Yes, it’s a bit of a cop-out, but given the circumstances it’s a scoreline Real would be happy with: it keeps them on track for the title, while Barcelona need a result as they look to secure a top-four finish. Both teams are on form and confident, but the similarities end there: Madrid are a settled, effective and somewhat predictable side under Ancelotti while Xavi’s Barca are only now emerging as something exciting and raw. Expect Barca to take the game to Madrid and dominate possession, but risk exposing themselves on the counterattack, just as we saw when the two sides last met in the Supercopa in January. — Kirkland Real Madrid 2-3 Barcelona: While there is always pressure on the teams in the Clasico, both sets of players may feel there is less this time around. It would take a monumental collapse for Madrid to lose the league from here, while Barca’s return to form should assure them of a top-four spot and Champions League football come May. With a bit of luck, then, the teams will cut loose. Logic dictates that Madrid’s settled side will be able to weather the Barca storm, but the Blaugrana are ever-improving and full of confidence heading to the Santiago Bernabeu this weekend. Their losing run against Madrid must end sometime. — Marsden
Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona: Yes, it’s a bit of a cop-out, but given the circumstances it’s a scoreline Real would be happy with: it keeps them on track for the title, while Barcelona need a result as they look to secure a top-four finish.
Both teams are on form and confident, but the similarities end there: Madrid are a settled, effective and somewhat predictable side under Ancelotti while Xavi’s Barca are only now emerging as something exciting and raw. Expect Barca to take the game to Madrid and dominate possession, but risk exposing themselves on the counterattack, just as we saw when the two sides last met in the Supercopa in January. — Kirkland
Real Madrid 2-3 Barcelona: While there is always pressure on the teams in the Clasico, both sets of players may feel there is less this time around. It would take a monumental collapse for Madrid to lose the league from here, while Barca’s return to form should assure them of a top-four spot and Champions League football come May. With a bit of luck, then, the teams will cut loose.
Logic dictates that Madrid’s settled side will be able to weather the Barca storm, but the Blaugrana are ever-improving and full of confidence heading to the Santiago Bernabeu this weekend. Their losing run against Madrid must end sometime. — Marsden